Europe needs to introduce practical incentives for best biofuels

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Biofuels could help the EU reduce its transport carbon footprint by 34 million tons per year. [ePURE]

MEPs must move beyond the polarised debate about biofuels and introduce practical measures that will pull Europe’s biofuels policy in the right direction, says Robert Wright. 

Robert Wright is the Secretary General of ePURE. 

Later this month, the three-year battle to reform Europe’s biofuels policy will resume with a Parliament vote in ENVI Committee on 24 February. Since 2012, biofuel stakeholders have locked horns in an extremely polarised debate about the future of Europe’s biofuels policy. The debate is about the highly complex Indirect Land Use Change (ILUC) effects of biofuels.

ePURE, representing both conventional and advanced bioethanol producers in Europe, believes that the ILUC debate has gone on for much too long and we now need a policy decision. Since the European Commission’s ILUC proposal in 2012, there have been hardly any biofuel investments made in Europe and the industry is crying out for stable and predictable policies that will enable us to invest and create jobs.

Strengthening the environmental benefits of Europe’s biofuel policy is an objective our industry fully supports, with our companies proud of the sustainability certification that accompanies our biofuel. The European bioethanol industry has a strong track record of proving that biofuels production, when done right, brings huge benefits to Europe.

European farmers grow over 90% of the crops used to produce bioethanol in Europe whilst using less than 1% of EU agricultural land. We now employ 50,000 people in mostly rural areas, bringing investment into areas of Europe that need it most. Our bioethanol saves on average 60% GHG emissions compared to petrol, helping to reduce Europe’s growing transport emissions. But under the right policy conditions, our industry can contribute much more.

Due to its complexity, predicting ILUC is an almost impossible task and recent attempts to estimate ILUC emissions, including the global economic modelling cited by the European Commission, have been widely criticised. The UN IPCC has weighed in on the debate saying that ILUC estimates are “highly uncertain, unobservable, unverifiable, and dependent on assumed policy, economic contexts, and inputs used in the modelling”.

Major studies by Iowa University and Biomass Research, which have both looked at ILUC using actual historical data, have shown that increased global demand for agricultural crops has been mostly met by increased production on existing agricultural land, through yield increases, double-cropping, etc., and not through additional land expansion.

A recent study in Europe conducted by Utrecht University identified practical measures that would mitigate or fully prevent ILUC before it occurred. This could happen in circumstances where higher crop yields and under-utilised land are used for the production of biofuels, or so-called “low-ILUC-risk biofuels” a concept recognised in Council’s 1st reading position.

The study found that the potential of low-ILUC-risk biofuels in Europe is very high, particularly in areas of Eastern Europe where crop yields can be 50% less than in Western Europe and there is a lot of unused agricultural land. The study concludes that low-ILUC-risk biofuels could supply at the very least 13% of Europe’s renewable energy in transport needs by 2020 and should, because they don’t displace food production, be excluded from any cap.

These studies highlight the key limitations of the ILUC modelling, the limitations of the currently regulatory responses to ILUC and, most importantly, they propose practical solutions to these.

In its 1st reading position, the European Parliament proposed a separate 7.5% target for renewable energy (bioethanol) use in petrol and binding targets for advanced biofuels. These are both specific practical measures that will promote biofuels with high net GHG savings and low-ILUC, the type of “good biofuels” Europe should be using more of.

MEPs should take note of these and other measures, such as offsetting, when considering how best to address ILUC. As we approach the conclusion of this policy debate, and the need for a lasting practical solution becomes ever more apparent, ePURE has brought practical compromise solutions to the table.

Our analysis found that a combination of the best elements of Council’s and Parliament’s 1st reading positions will maximise the GHG savings achieved by Europe’s biofuels policy by saving 34 million tonnes of GHG emissions per year, even after potential ILUC emissions have been taken into account. These GHG savings are the equivalent to removing the annual GHG emissions of about 20 million cars, around 7% of the total EU vehicle fleet.

What we propose is a practical, workable solution that will maximise the contribution of biofuels with good environmental performance, such as bioethanol, which can deliver meaningful GHG savings before 2020 and beyond.